Democrats face increasing pressure to back smaller COVID-19 stimulus

Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill are facing increasing pressure — both internal and external — to accept a smaller coronavirus aid package for the sake of securing another round of emergency relief before year’s end. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) have insisted for weeks that the House-passed $2.2 trillion bill is their starting point for any negotiations as they’ve sought to nudge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) closer to their position from the $500 billion he’s championed. 

But the Democratic strategy is running into roadblocks as President-elect Joe Biden signals he wants an agreement this year and more and more Democratic lawmakers are opening the door to going below the top leaders’ $2.2 trillion red line. 

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden ally, said that he would support something below $2.2 trillion, but, like most Democrats, believes the offer from McConnell is inadequate as cases climb across the country and some cities and states are reimposing restrictions aimed at slowing the spread. 

“To me it’s less about exactly what dollar amount than it is what are the areas where we’re providing some relief,” he said. “I think we ought to be doing a broad package that provides support to small businesses through another round of PPP, to schools, to public health agencies to prepare for vaccine distribution … so to me it’s less about what is the top-line dollar though I would like it to be as close to $2 trillion or above as possible, than it is about how broad it is.” 

The cracks in strategy reach into leadership teams in both chambers. 

“I just hope that we can get agreement. It may not be everything that everybody wants but at least if we can get some significant relief to people,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told CQ-Roll Call. “And then we’re going to be here next year. If we need to do other things, we’ll do other things.”

Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, offered similar advice in a recent CNN interview saying, “Let’s get something done that is significant, do what we can achieve now.” 

The calls appeared to be turbocharged when The New York Times reported that Biden’s team was pressing Pelosi and Schumer to cut a deal during the lame-duck, even if it’s smaller than Democratic leaders in Congress prefer. 

Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Biden, said it was “incorrect” that Biden was explicitly pushing Pelosi and Schumer to pass a pared-down bill. He didn’t respond to a question about if Biden, who has repeatedly said he wants a deal this year, could support a bill less than $2.2 trillion. 

Asked about the Times report that Biden wants a lame-duck deal even if it’s smaller, a spokesman for Pelosi pointed back to Bates’s statement.

For Biden and his team, there are several clear advantages to securing a lame-duck coronavirus package. 

First, it would help alleviate the economic effect of the current spike in coronavirus cases, which have topped 11 million in the United States, clearing the slate for Biden to tackle other legislative priorities when he’s sworn in on Jan. 20. 

And second, it would put the deficit increase associated with another round of emergency COVID-19 aid squarely under the tenure of President Trump, just as GOP leaders signal a shift toward austerity next year under Biden. 

“I think the Senate races in Georgia kind of put a premium on ‘we ought to try to get something.’ Because I think the two sitting senators kind of have to go out and … have something,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), the party’s 2016 vice presidential nominee. 

“And also it wouldn’t be bad for Democrats … to help the incoming Biden administration on that too. Biden wants something by the end of December, we ought to be able to find it ,” added Kaine, who said the $1.8 trillion to $2.2 trillion price range previously discussed by Pelosi and the White House “makes a lot of sense.” 

Biden, Schumer and Pelosi, who met in Delaware last week, have emphasized that they want a deal on a fifth coronavirus package during the lame-duck session. But Biden hasn’t specified what price tag he could support as part of lame-duck negotiations. 

Pelosi has, for months, stuck by her $2.2 trillion demand for another round of emergency stimulus, a proposal that passed through the House in October but went ignored by GOP leaders in the Senate. And she’s urged her caucus to stay united amid the debate, arguing that Biden’s victory over Trump lends Democrats a mandate to move their legislative priorities on coronavirus relief and a host of other issues. 

“We advocate because we believe we can convince others of our point of view,” she wrote to Democrats earlier in the month. “If we advocate to unify, we can prevail.”

But McConnell has shown no signs of giving in even as the clock ticks on the chances of getting a deal this year. After Pelosi and Schumer held a joint press conference to slam him, McConnell told reporters of the higher figure “that’s not a place I think we’re willing to go.” 

“My view is the level at which the economy is improving further underscores that we need to do something at about the amount that we put on the floor in September and October. Highly targeted at what the residual problems are,” he said. 

Senate Republicans have twice offered a roughly $500 billion GOP-only bill that was blocked in the Senate. McConnell, if there’s going to be a year-end deal, wants it to be similar to that legislation, which included another round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) aid, money for schools and testing and the GOP leader’s red-line of protections against coronavirus lawsuits. 

But some Republican senators have indicated they are willing to go higher, in a potential opening to an eventual deal.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) have said that more than $500 billion is needed. And Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said he is talking with a bipartisan group of senators about how to break the stalemate on a fifth coronavirus relief bill and get a “targeted, effective program.” 

A number of rank-and-file Democrats, many of them moderate lawmakers who survived tough reelection contests, are also pressing for bipartisan compromise in order to get some relief for struggling families and small businesses out the door before January.

Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa), a first-term lawmaker who won reelection in a state that went to Trump, said her priority is to get a bill enacted this year, and is not wedded to a specific number.

“I’ve said all along there is no one price tag that I would demand or refuse to go below in order to see us get relief to those who need it,” she said in a statement to The Hill. “If a proposal sufficiently addresses the pressing issues facing our families, workers, businesses, municipal services, and health systems, I would of course support that compromise.” 

The Problem Solvers, a bipartisan group of moderate lawmakers, has been in talks with administration officials and senators from both parties, coming away from those discussions confident that an agreement is possible before January.  

“We cannot delay any longer,” Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), the group’s co-chairs, said in a statement. “We need negotiators from both sides to come to the table willing to compromise and fully engage to get a deal across the finish line.”

A senior aide associated with the Blue Dog Coalition of centrist Democrats said that the group’s members think the leaders of the current Congress should negotiate a deal on COVID-19 relief as soon as possible, but that members don’t see that as mutually exclusive with Congress passing more robust measures once Biden takes office.
Brett Samuels contributed.
Tags Charles Schumer Chris Coons Cindy Axne Coronavirus COVID-19 Dick Durbin Donald Trump Joe Biden Josh Gottheimer Lindsey Graham Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Rob Portman Steny Hoyer Stimulus Susan Collins Tim Kaine Tom Reed
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